One man's coal pit is another's symbol of EU integration

Member states have been asked to nominate sites for a new European Heritage Label. So why won't Britain take part? John Lichfield and Cheryl Roussel report look at the runners and riders
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The Independent Online

Here is your €900,000 question. What do the Acropolis, a former student hostel in Madrid and the Boris Christoff music centre in Bulgaria have in common? Answer: They are all, according to the European Commission, key sites in European history and culture and, therefore, places which symbolise the long march towards the creation of the European Union.

Other hot-spots of European political and cultural heritage include the Gdansk shipyards (which simultaneously built ships and dismantled the Iron Curtain), a Czech coal mine and a Portuguese library.

Until now, the list, including 64 oddly disparate places in 18 countries, has been merely informal. This week, the European Commission proposed that the European Heritage Label should become an official EU project, extending to all 27 EU member states. With a modest budget of €920,000 [£837,000] a year, the project will encourage awareness – especially amongst young people – of "European integration, ideals and history".

No prizes for guessing which EU country (with only one fellow foot-dragger, Finland) has yet to put forward any sites for consideration for the European Heritage Label. The Independent has therefore come up with some ideas of its own for European hotspots in Britain – some serious; some less so (see opposite).

The European Culture Commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, who launched the idea this week, said that it would "contribute to strengthening European citizens' sense of belonging to the EU and promote mutual understanding in Europe".

Unlike similar schemes such as the Unesco World Heritage list, the label would not just be given to places which were already celebrated for their beauty or historical importance. The title would be given to sites of European "symbolic importance" – either because they had played "a key role in the history of the European Union" or because they had contributed to Europe's cultural and democratic heritage.

Brussels hopes that the list will encourage tourist visits – including presumably to the coal mine and shipyard. Eventually, it plans to encourage links, such as exchange visits between sites. Places on the existing informal list will have to be vetted a second time. Member governments will be asked to nominate two new sites each year, only one of which may be accepted.

The official objective is to "increase knowledge and appreciation among European citizens, especially young people, of their common history". The project, it is forecast, will "give European citizens a greater sense of belonging to the European Union".

"The cost of setting up this initiative ... is to our mind small compared with the potential educational and tourist benefits," said Ms Vassiliou. The idea will be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and could come into effect next year.

Some of the sites on the existing list are easily justified. The Acropolis qualifies as a symbol of the birthplace of democracy. The Capitol in Rome as the centre of the first "European Union" – the Roman Empire.

It is equally difficult to argue with the Gdansk Shipyards, the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union. (One might think it ironic, however, that the shipyards are now threatened with closure and the European Commission has refused to allow further Polish national subsidies to keep them open.)

There can be no quarrel either with the inclusion of the house of Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the Common Market, and therefore the EU, at Scy-Chazelles in Lorraine in eastern France.

Many of the other sites on the existing list are, however, obscure in the extreme. The student residence in Madrid – the Residencia de Estudiantes – is included because it was a meeting place for Spanish artists and intellectuals in the early 20th century. The Vitkovice coal mine in the Czech Republic qualifies because it was the site of the "first puddle furnace in the Austrian empire" and because it was the "oldest and most important coal and steel company of the Danube monarchy".

The Boris Christoff music centre in Bulgaria made the list because Mr Christoff was "one of the greatest bass singers" of the 20th century. The general library of the University of Coimbra in Portugal is included as the "oldest in Portugal" and one of the oldest in Europe.

All of these places – and probably more than half the places on the present list – seem to be of more national, than pan-European cultural and political importance. What does this prove? Our ignorance of European history? Or that, finally, there is no "European" history – only lots of overlapping national histories?

The European Commission initiative is far from being silly. We cannot both complain that the EU is faceless and also complain when it tries to give itself a face (and a history).

But like other EU policies the idea may be in danger of spiralling out of control. The number of sites in EU countries which have genuine pan-European significance are very few. Some of the sites on the existing informal list verge on the absurd. To add one a year in each EU country will rapidly make a mockery of the whole project.

If the Government won't take part, then we will...

The British Government has yet to put forward to the EU any sites of "European symbolic importance" in the UK. This is an oversight which must be corrected. The Independent has drawn up a shortlist, both serious and less so, which is broadly similar to the sites already accepted for 17 other EU nations.

*Runnymede, beside the Thames, west of London, where the Magna Carta – granddaddy of all democratic and human rights' charters – was signed in 1215.

*The Channel Tunnel, opened in 1994, and made an enormous contribution to European unity. The European continent, previously isolated from the rest of the world, was finally connected to Britain.

*Hadrian's Wall (AD122) is the northern boundary of the first ever attempt, by Italian immigrants, to create a European Union. Scotland's application for membership was refused.

*Upholland, a Lancashire town. If the birthplace of Robert Schuman (first European Commission president) is honoured, why not the birthplace of Baroness Ashton of Upholland, the first EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy?

*Grantham, a Lincolnshire market town. Similarly, the birthplace of Baroness Thatcher should be included since she was the prime minister who signed the Single European Act to create a properly unified European single market for the first time.

*Sidcup, Kent. Old Bexley and Sidcup was the parliamentary constituency of Edward Heath, the prime minister who took Britain into Europe in 1973.

*Old Trafford, 100 years old this year, home of the first English football club to play in, and win, the European Cup.

*A large field in Norfolk to commemorate the contribution of the Common Agricultural Policy to the beautification of the British countryside.

*Sandwich, Kent. To symbolise Britain's principal contribution to European cuisine.